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Exploring Yoruba santeria religion in cuba

Church of Yemaja in Santeria


I recently travelled across Cuba, an island in the Caribbean still developing, due to the economic embargo put in place by its closest neighbour, the United States of America after the socialist government of Fidel Castro was established in 1959. I spent three weeks travelling across much of the Western part of the country, touring the glorious cities of Cienfuengos, Trinidad, and of course, the capital, Havana, and taking in the views of the beautiful landscape. Cuba is one of the safest and crime free countries in the world and I felt very much at ease travelling round the country without any fear or feelings of insecurity.

There is a lot to learn about Cuba. One of the most intriguing discoveries during my travel is the depth and width of the belief in and practice of Yoruba traditional religions on the island. Anecdotally, more than 80 per cent of the Cuban population are either full-blown worshippers of different Yoruba Orishas or are Santeria believers. The worshippers or initiates of Orishas can be seen all over the island in their all-white outfits but distinguished by the colours of their special ilekes or beads. The beads are symbolically coloured to denote key attributes of the Orisha – for example, the colour blue represents, the Queen Orisha, Yemaja. Red denotes Sango, white is worn by followers of Obatala, yellow by worshippers of Orunmila and purple by the believers in Obaluaye.

In Old Havana I visited the Yoruba Orisha Museum just opposite the Capitol parliament building and met with the Chief Curator of the Centre, Signora Mercedes Omilana Armenteros who showed me round and explained its purpose. “The Orishas are seen as dispensers of great blessings”, she emphasised. The museum is dedicated to all the major Cuban-Yoruba deities with images of each and explanation of their roles and attributes depicted. These range from Obatala, to Orunmila, Yemaja, Oya, Sango, Ogun, Obalufon and so on. As a Yoruba myself, I was transfixed by the deep strength of pride and belief in Yoruba traditional customs among the Cuban people and their readiness to share this knowledge with others.

A range of questions went through my mind as I learnt more about Cuban-Yoruba culture. “How was it these religions survived centuries of slave trade and slavery”? Most importantly, “why do Yoruba-Cubans still have strong beliefs in Orishas while many Nigerian-Yorubas do not?”

It was said that during slavery on the Island of Cuba, the slaves — most of whom were trafficked from the Yoruba Kingdom — would use incantations and drum beatings to communicate and relate with each other. This irked the Spanish slave traders who were equally concerned about the success of the slave revolt in neighbouring Haiti at that time and feared the same fate in Cuba. A compromise was reached: a mixture of the African religions identifying the strength of Yoruba spirituality and Catholicism would be forged. This is why Yemaja is seen as the Regna (the Queen Mother) while other Yoruba deities are regarded as Patron Saints in Santeria religion.

I was able to visit a Santeria Church La Virgen De Regla Yemaja on the Isle of Regla just 10 minutes on the ferry from Old Havana. It is the church of Yemaja in Santeria religion. A diverse mix of people have come to pray to Yemaja inside the church. I was amazed by the diversity of the worshippers —  blacks, whites, mixed races and latinos all came to pray and sought blessings.

On the perimeter of the church sat same babalawos or worshippers. They allowed me to take pictures. They made some divinations for me with their ‘opele’ made of four coconut shells. Each time the opele opened, which I was told means ‘alafia,’ peace.

The practice of Yoruba religion is so strong in Cuba one can even see ebo (sacrifices or offerings) placed in strategic places and street intersections and I saw many instances of this in Trinidad and Havana. Trinidad, a key, historic city towards the east of the Island was a key stranglehold of the slave trade with people trafficked there to be exploited for their labour on the array of sugar plantations, the ruins that still dotted the area.

Many Orisha practitioners or believers also have imageries (or ‘idols’) of their deities even in their homes. I was visiting the Franciscan Convent in the Centre of Trinidad when a man offered to sell me some Cuban cigars. “I have them in my house, come and see,” he said. I had no interest in buying cigars, but out of curiosity, I followed him to his place just down the road. His family was at home.I was surprised to see an image in his living room. I asked him who that was. “Oh, that is Ogun,” he told me with the utmost pride anyone could muster. I was flabbergasted.

On the streets of Old Havana, I witnessed many processions by worshippers of different deities, including Obaluaye, pictured below.The message for me as I left Cuba is the importance of holding on to what makes one authentic and real. 300 years after the first people were trafficked and enslaved far from their homes in the great Yoruba kingdom, what kept them real was the commonality and the depth of their beliefs in their religions. What helped them survive the evil and brutality of slavery up till this day was their strong beliefs in the power of their Orishas. This strong belief has been passed on and retained through the generations.

Sadly, most Yoruba people in Nigeria today who have imbibed the Abrahamic religions now regard beliefs in the Orishas as primitive, pagan, uncouth, unGodly and backwards. Some would ascribe this to the effect of colonial brainwashing which in itself is a form of mental slavery. Personally, I see the Yoruba Orishas as nothing more than the Elemental Beings who are totally obedient to the Will of the Creator. We should celebrate and not discard them. The Yoruba-Cubans have demonstrated how and why this should be the case.
• Ariyo is a solo-traveller and lives in London 

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